Why new tests will help teachers give extra support to those pupils that need it
Last Easter Monday, I appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme to debate the motion passed by one wing of the National Education Union at its annual conference which claimed that new assessments the government plans to introduce for children starting school are unnecessary and immoral. The union claims these tests will provide no useful information to teachers, and they will make children stressed.
Neither of these claims stack up. Rejecting the new baseline assessments will actually mean less recognition of the contribution of teachers in the early years make to their pupils’ education.
Provided the tests are well-constructed, they will provide valid and useful data, which can help teachers target support at those children who need a bit more support to get to the same level as their peers. The purpose of the reception baseline is to establish what children can do, in regards to English and mathematics, when they start school. A 2007 comparison of international studies provided evidence that early skills in a child’s native language and maths—for example, being able to identify what writing looks like, or being able to deploy the concept of bigger and smaller—correlated with later academic success.
No child should be stressed out by these assessments. The use of the word “tests” might lead some to think that 4-year olds are being asked to do homework to prepare for a written examination that they pass or fail. This is entirely inaccurate: properly conducted, children will not even know they are taking an assessment at all—they will simply be spending a few minutes with their teacher, answering some questions. They never need to be told the result, and schools do not need to worry about the outcomes—government has been clear it will not be published as a judgement on the school (and, given the assessments will be administered within six weeks of a child starting school, how could they be?). Instead, the results will only be used to compare to a child’s outcomes at the end of primary school, to show which schools have helped children make the most progress, and from that attempt to learn lessons across the system to ensure more children can make good progress.
It is important to note that this measuring of progress is not new. It happens in schools at the moment, but it is calculated by comparing the results of tests taken at the end of primary schooling to the results of assessments completed at the end of Key Stage 1 (the end of Year 2 in primary schools). This means that the work teachers are doing in Reception and Years 1 and 2 with children to help them learn is not formally recognised by the assessment system, since there is no way of measuring whether progress has been made. If the reception baseline assessments do not go ahead, KS1 tests will not be removed.
The NEU argue that teachers can conduct observations for themselves of their pupils in Reception and this sort of assessment provides all the information necessary to identify where progress is happening. But this is to load on teachers an impossible burden: no single teacher can possibly make a judgement about where a child’s development is compared to all of their peer group, because they will not have assessed every other child in that peer group.
Instead, teachers can only use the comparators they have: the rest of the class, or previous classes they have taught, which is nowhere near a sufficiently representative sample for them to make these kinds of judgements. Research evidence consistently shows that teacher assessment is unreliable, and that this most often affects the outcomes of children from more deprived backgrounds, thereby compounding their disadvantage—this is not because teachers are bad people but because no one could possibly do this reliably. There must be some form of well-constructed and valid testing arrangement to ensure all children can be fairly assessed and then usefully assisted to improve.
Teachers should welcome a well-designed baseline test as an efficient and effective way to make the accountability system for schools better and fairer, for them and for their pupils. Some might not hold their breath however, as the BBC’s Nick Robinson pointed out to former NUT President Louise Regan on Today, her union (now merged into the NEU) have opposed every new test that Governments of all major parties have sought to introduce.